Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Wait long long: A view of public housing in Singapore (part 1).

When considering public housing in Singapore, we very often hear two extreme points of view. One is the complaint about the high prices and long waiting time for Built-to-Order projects (literally, they only build the flat when you book it, so you have to wait for a period of three to five years to get your home).

The other extreme, however, sings the praises of the HDB - prices are affordable, the flats are beautiful, nowhere else in the world is there a country with such a high percentage of people owning such well-designed property.

In fact, it's not difficult to find, among residents of Singapore and visitors alike, people who believe that the HDB are to be credited with developing Singapore from a slum city to a vibrant city. Nowhere is such propaganda more prominent than in the HDB's gallery, unabashedly titled "From Slums to Vibrant Towns".

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, so here's the garden at my mother's family home in the 1970s before the PAP government sent them a letter of evacuation and shunted some of them off to HDB flats. The red-roofed ang mo chu (Western-style house) is visible in the background. You can still see some of these one-storey landed homes around, nestled in the heart of landed estates, among newer two to four-storey properties with post-modern designs.

Does this look like a slum?
A modern kitchen in the 1970s, with no credit to the HDB.
Yet according to HDB rhetoric, most Singaporeans back then - except for the super wealthy - were twaddling about in degenerate homes from the 1960s well into the 1980s. Many people seem to have been convinced by that rhetoric, including this British lady who lived here and went for the HDB exhibition ("most people lived in slums and kampongs which were dirty and unsafe"), and it is most unfortunate.

Although the house pictured above was only built in the early 1970s, my mother's home in the 1960s was also a large construct with eight bedrooms. Even my dad's family, who was lower middle class, had a well-built house with running water and were able to afford a family car.

Now, my intention of writing all this is not to deny the existence of slums in Singapore. The infamous slums which were burnt down in the Bukit Ho Swee Fire are an example of how overcrowding at squatters' quarters have the potential to cause large-scale destruction. Historian Dr Loh Kah Seng has written an engaging book on the subject (which I have not read yet, but I have read the thesis that the book is based on).

Neither do I wish to deny the efforts by the government to improve our lives. On the contrary, I greatly appreciate the successes of the PAP government in improving sanitation. For example, for all his love for his old home, my dad concedes that living in a HDB flat is more convenient and hygienic. This is because the lavatory in my dad's old home was located about 100 metres outside his house. If he needed the toilet at night, he had to walk out of the house in the dark, accompanied by the eerie glow of a torchlight, and even drag his guard dog along. Not to mention the stinky fact that human waste back then had to be disposed of manually by night soil collectors.

But apart from the much-appreciated improvements in sanitary conditions, and the improvement to the lives of slum-dwellers, it is extremely questionable if our housing policy has been the resounding success that it is touted to be. To what extent is it true that the majority in Singapore had poor living conditions before the HDB came along? How far did their lives improve after the HDB started rehousing Singaporeans? I guess this is something for the professional historians to ponder over. After all, for the people living in bigger homes amidst greenery before HDB came along, it is unlikely that they would find HDB homes like the following an improvement to their lives.

Credit: H88.com.sg
In an atmosphere of lack of political competition, it has been easy for the government to promote the view that the HDB has been vastly successful in improving the quality of life of Singaporeans. Further, that the recent throngs of people who are griping about the high prices of public housing are just jealous citizens from the lower classes who expect social mobility without having to work hard for it and whose aspirations have risen over the years.

To continue thinking in that vein would be a political mistake for the PAP. The government must be aware that Aljunied GRC, which the PAP lost in GE2011, comprises a significant proportion of landed estates, including the affluent Serangoon Gardens neighbourhood and landed and private properties in the Hougang and Upper Paya Lebar area. Joo Chiat ward, which the PAP candidate won by only a thin margin of 51% against a then relatively unknown Yee Jenn Jong from the Workers' Party, is also a neighbourhood comprising many landed homes. Judging by their properties, these people should be leading comfortable lives. So, why didn't the PAP receive a strong mandate in Joo Chiat, and why did it lose Aljunied GRC?

This is all still moot but I think the PAP is losing ground among the middle and upper middle classes. And the reason isn't too difficult to imagine. The political party has simply forgotten that before it rolled out all its domestic policies, there were already many people in Singapore who had been eking a good living for themselves since the British colonial days, including those who possessed one of the strongest symbols of middle class comfort: the ownership of a nice home. Far from being majority illiterate slum-dwellers who should be grateful for government aid, they were educated, skilled, and thus empowered, individuals who gave their support to Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP - despite initial suspicions that the PAP might have been working together with the Communists. Nevertheless, they trusted the PAP for decades, appreciated its anti-corruption and law-by-law stance, cooperated with the government and tolerated the PAP's self-congratulatory talk and sometimes overbearing attitude, for the sake of having a safe and harmonious homeland. However, since the 2000s, many writers have noted that the "social contract" between Singaporeans and the government has gotten a tad shaky. And by GE2011, things reached a point where even those who had comfortable lives were beginning to feel uncomfortable with the actions of the party they supported.

Based on Minister Ng Eng Hen's comments two days ago, it has still not yet occurred to the PAP government that many Singaporeans are voting against them, not because their lives have not improved to suit their "higher aspirations", but because their lives have actually declined in quality in recent years, starting with the inability for many of them to purchase a home when they needed one.

Nevertheless, I think that politically biased arguments dissing either the citizens or the PAP government are counter-productive. Instead of coming up with solutions, polarised debates tend to be more concerned with proving a point with both sides accusing each other of lack of sympathy on the one hand, and being "oppie" ingrates on the other. Motivated mainly by the hope that we can make things easier for young couples who wish to settle down, in my next post, I shall blog about some challenges that couples face in purchasing their new home, and the lasting impact that these challenges would have on their lives. It is hoped that such challenges will be mitigated as far as possible for future generations of Singaporeans.

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